Japan’s Quattro Ragazzi in New York

Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Japan Society Gallery

Anne Holler
October 31, 2017 - 16:48

The first East-West cultural exchange hinged on the diplomatic skills of four boys, the Quattro Ragazzi, of Japan. In 1582, at the height of the Christian Century, four young teenagers from the Japanese nobility—Mancio Itō, Miguel Chijiwa, Julião Nakaura and Martinao Hara—were dispatched to Europe, with a Jesuit priest, and introduced throughout the courts and palaces as models of Christian conversion. Officially known as the Tenshō Mission, the delegation lasted over eight years and the end goal of the four boys, known throughout Italy as the Quattro Ragazzi, was no less than to meet Pope Gregory XIII in Rome.


In Pisa, the boys took in the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a sumptuous ball hosted by the Grand Duke and Duchess of Tuscany. One of the boys was asked to dance by the Duchess, the infamous former mistress, by then wife to the duke, Bianca Cappello. Their five-day visit to Florence included a close look at Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and, of course, the Duomo. While in the city, the boys received word that the Pope was in ill health and that they should make straight for Rome. The mission arrived just in time. Two days after their second audience with Gregory XIII, the pontiff died. Because of the timing, the boys ended up meeting not one but two popes, staying long enough to view the Pantheon and Michelangelo’s Pietà, and when Sixtus V was elected, the Quattro Ragazzi participated in all the pomp and ceremony for the new pope. Upon their return home, they were duly honored but the enthusiasm for Christianity was waning. Their story is little known in the West, but a new exhibit at New York’s Japan Society is setting the story straight.


“Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” is both a visual retelling of the remarkable eight-year journey of the Quattro Ragazzi and a celebration for the society’s 110th anniversary.


The inspiration for the exhibit came from a chance encounter the Japanese photographer experienced in Vicenza at Palladio’s Olimpico Theater. (Photographing theaters and Italian opera houses are a lifelong passion for Sugimoto.) While wandering down a hallway of the theater, the artist came upon a mural painting of four boys being received by a pope. He asked the staff about the painting and they told him that the boys were from Japan. Sugimoto then realized that the boys were from the famous Tenshō Mission. “I felt very interested. Strange... {They were} the first Japanese who came to Europe. I am Japanese, so I got very curious and interested in the journey itself, and so I decided to follow them and see if I can find the same building or sight that they saw and then I would be able to photograph it. Then I can share the same memory with the four boys.”

Last Supper Acts of God

This idea—sharing the same memory—is an experience that the artist finds fascinating. Sugimoto once remarked that, from an early age, he attended movies with his mother and remembers the intimacy and emotion that audiences share. His black-and-white photographs in the Japan Society exhibit are a visual retracing of Italian sights that the boys covered on their eight-year-long trip. While Sugimoto’s concept is intriguing, the actual product of his efforts leaves something to be desired. The silver gelatin photos do not convey any excitement that the boys might have felt from the grandeur of the European experience.


Sugimoto has written that his photography is an attempt to capture time or in his words, “time exposed”. He traveled in their 16th-century footsteps as a fellow Japanese with a camera (already one step removed from just looking at something) and an already large exposure to Western culture. Can the artist, a cosmopolitan world traveler in his sixth decade, really “share the same memory” as the boys? Or is he merely retracing their steps? Even photographing the sights they saw is tricky. The image of the Duomo, clad in marble in the 19th century, is not the Duomo that the boys saw.


Another aspect of the exhibit is a small collection of nanban art, which depicts European and Christian themes but is executed by Japanese artists using traditional techniques and media.

Portion of A Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan

(“Southern Barbarian”) art developed with the arrival of the first Portuguese trading ships in 1543. The Japan Society displays one work of this genre that is particularly relevant to the story of the Quattro Ragazzi: A Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan. The early 17th-century work is a byōbu, a six-panel folding screen, rendered in ink, color, gold and gold leaf. On February 20, 1582, when the four boys said goodbye to their families and all that was familiar, they boarded a similar Portuguese trading ship setting sail from Nagasaki harbor. They returned as young men, unrecognizable to their families, on a similar ship on July 21, 1590.


Several months later, the former Quattro Ragazzi joined up to form a quartet. They appeared on stage with a harp, clavichord, violin and lute, and proceeded to play Western music. Emperor Hideyoshi was in the audience. We do not know what they played, but the sound so charmed the Emperor that he asked for two encores.


Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise

Japan Society Gallery

333 East 47th Street, New York, NY 10017 - Until January 7, 2018


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